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Author: Geoff

Founder, creator, guy what does stuff for and in Vintrock

Is Andor Near-Perfection? (Spoilers)

(Warning this contains spoilers on Season 1 of Andor, proceed at your own risk)

Season 1 of Andor wrapped up on Wednesday, and I am almost speechless. The consistency and quality over 12 episodes was breathtaking. It’s interesting because it’s Star Wars, but not Star Wars in the conventional sense. It’s like Star Wars, but with a real edge. I am keeping fingers, toes, eyes and whatever else I can cross crossed because I hope they can maintain it into season 2. And I hope beyond hope they don’t use the second season to hype up more spin-offs they way they did with season 2 of The Mandalorian.

Amazing Material

The depth of the characters, the dialog, the pacing, the dialog (again), and THE DIALOG. Holy crap, it’s nice to see someone who can write high-quality dialog that is expository and exhilarating, and doesn’t leave you thinking “c’mon, just get to the point”. Luthen’s (Stellan Skarsgård) speech at the end of episode 11, and Maarva’s (Fiona Shaw) speech via hologram on Rix Road were both poignant, powerful, but still to the point. There was very little wasted dialog.

The dialog was further bolstered by the sets. Those that should be pristine were pristine. But not everything was neat and clean and orderly, and the disorderly or well-worn looked the part naturally. None of the settings felt contrived or fake. They looked and felt like real places that you could visit. You felt the depth and history for those sets that were old. Niamos (aka Space Florida) looked as it should, sorta-new but sorta-tired at the same time. Few resorts are as nice as the brochure, and this was no exception.

The acting for every single character was incredible. I didn’t see a single flat or phoned-in performance, and even the truly minor characters that had a few seconds of screen time felt real. But the main characters were each able to shine, even when you had groups of them together. Their energy and their performances seemed to feed off each other.

There was a single, brief space battle. And as short as it was, it felt special, it was exhilarating. I suspect its because we weren’t immersed in action, so it stands out. It’s uniqueness in the story makes it more dramatic, and it’s pacing and composition as a small story was incredible.

Not-so-Minor Characters

Syril Karn’s (Kyle Soller) arc in the story was incredible, not because it was so compelling necessarily, but because it was so well done. His narcissism having his rent-a-cop uniform tailored. Every scene where he is eating at his mother’s home is him eating a children’s cereal, never “grown up food”. His demeanour around Dedra Meero (Denise Gough) and his uncertainty when dealing with other people in general was so well portrayed. I was sure he was going to kiss her after rescuing her from the street battle, and was impressed the writers had the courage to stay away from that trope. Syril had just enough growth to be plausible, but wasn’t entirely transformed, which is a good thing. People don’t change as much as we think in a short period of time, so why would he?

Watching Vel Sartha (Faye Marsay) switch between clean and coifed and grubby and ready for action was impressive. The first time, I wasn’t sure I was watching the same performer. Seeing a character that wavers between confident and tentative, from certain to uncertain, made that character more believable, more real, to me.

The droid B2EMO (voice by Dave Chapman) was made important, and had a personality. Watching the little guy reacting to Maarva’s death was truly emotional.

There are so many characters with limited time in the story, but that are still important to the story. You’d be hard pressed to remove any one of them and have the thing hang together. And every one of their performances left an impression. Kino Loy, Ruescott Melshi, Saw Guerrera. The list just goes on.

And Then There’s Cassian Andor

Diego Luna’s portrayal of Cassian Andor is simply spectacular. We can see someone who is still growing, still learning, becoming the character we eventually see in Rogue One. The man is an incredibly talented performer. He takes the amazing material at his disposal and creates a masterpiece on the screen.

The character’s strengths and flaws are there for us to see. Luna’s performance brings both the good and bad in Andor to the fore. And the storytellers never resort to cliche or stereotypes to get their tale told. It’s incredible.

Don’t Forget The Soundtrack

The music for the show is it’s own strength. The opening theme is the same melody, but a different performance each time. There are very few repeated musical cues, and none of the grand symphonic music from the rest of the Star Wars universe.

What’s equally impressive is the diversity of musical styles throughout the show. You have classical, synth, basic rock, and a host of other styles, sometimes all within one episode. I read an article (I’ve lost the link) that interviewed the composer, and he spent as much time making the music as they spent filming and editing. He spent hours on a piece that would only be heard for a few seconds in one case, but wanted to write the entire song to it felt complete. There is one song that they decided would be a “galactic hit”, so it appears in its original form, and in various forms including muzak throughout the rest of the show. Brilliance.

Hopes for Season Two

I have high hopes for season two. My wish is for them to put the same care and attention into it, and to avoid a sophomore slump. I hope beyond hope that Disney leaves them alone (and with Iger at the helm again, that may just happen). Don’t use it as a vehicle to push other products. Stick to the story.

If the producers, cast, and crew can make season two with the same stunning quality as season one, I will be thoroughly impressed. It can be hard to carry on something at that high level. At some point, there will be stumbles. That it never happened, at all, in 12 1-hour episodes is truly impressive. If they can repeat that in season two, then they deserve all the accolades possible.

Writing and Technology

There are many, many opinions on what is the “right” way to use technology when writing creatively. Some are deeply held, others are more flexible. There may be a divide when it comes to the age groups that different writers fall in, but even there, you’ll find exceptions (some vocal about it). I’m a technologist, so naturally my views are skewed by my experience, but I’m also in that gray area between “baby boomer” and “Gen X”, depending on where the line gets drawn. Frankly, I’ve never really identified with either all that strongly. But I won’t pretend that my age and experience don’t influence my preferences when it comes to the tools I use for writing.

Modernity vs. Nostalgia

I’ve noticed that there are a cohort of writers out there that swear by the more historically traditional tools of the trade: either pen and paper, or the venerable typewriter. Personally, I love typewriters, although at the moment I am without one. I have some vintage machines I’m hoping to acquire in the coming years. They are both marvels of art and engineering. And there are those that swear by them as their main writing tool. For them, there is some visceral connection between the words and the act of forging them on paper.

I get that, but I also know that I was about three times faster on an electric typewriter, and I’m faster again on a computer keyboard. I’ve been writing other work that way for so long that it’s my “connection”, but that’s me. It doesn’t mean I won’t try using a typewriter (once I get one) as an experiment. I suspect I won’t find it as productive, but I haven’t used one for writing in decades, so I could very well be wrong. If nothing else, it will be fun to give it a go.

Over time, I’ve experimented with a few different technological approaches to writing. I tried using a Freewrite Traveler, but found it a bit awkward and cumbersome both physically and from a workflow point of view. The bigger reason, though was I  didn’t see the point of dragging another piece of technology around, since I already have a laptop (with an arguably better keyboard). I also experimented with a dedicated writing tool on iPad (Hanx Writer from Tom Hanks) coupled with a bluetooth keyboard that approximated the feel of a typewriter. It was fun, but it felt like it was slowing me down, that it wasn’t “keeping up” with my thoughts as I tried to get them down. I won’t pretend that I was looking at that objectively, that is a purely subjective feeling on my part.

Most of my writing over the past four decades has been done in either a simple text editor (before PC’s and word processors were a thing) or using a word processor, virtually all of it using Microsoft Word. I’ve used others (Framemaker, Pages, Google Docs, LibreOffice, a host of others on Unix, Mac, and Windows), but Word became the standard in most industries, so that’s what we used. For my creative writing, I began using Word, but in the past few years I’ve been using Scrivener. It suits the workflow that I’m comfortable with, and it provides me with some reasonably straightforward ways to organize and edit my work. It also allows me to collect notes, character outlines, external links for references, all in a single project.

My Workflow (for now)

During the past year, I’ve begun to develop my own personal workflow that seems to help me focus on my writing. I expect it will continue to evolve. My participation in NaNoWriMo 2022 helped focus and structure it more than I had in the past. Part of how I work was inspired by an article I read in Writer’s Digest, on some approaches to “winning” NaNoWriMo. It starts with the checklist I made, which are the “work items” I need to put in place to get writing.

This is in front of me on my desk, ready for me to refer to it to make sure I haven’t missed something in my rush to get writing. I use the Focus feature on my Apple devices to filter out distractions like the arrival of new email or text messages, or any news alerts. I have a tool (I’ll describe later) that helps me with some of the mechanical elements of crafting my story. I keep a web browser ready for any searches I might have to do, but other than that browser window, Scrivener, and my new tool, all my other apps and windows are hidden away. I remove all the other distractions so I can focus on the task at hand, writing.

Setting The Mood

Part of my writing environment is the music playlist that I’m using. I’ve created one specific to the story I’m working on. It’s a collection of songs (currently the soundtracks for both Blade Runner movies, Andor, The Martian, and The Expanse) meant to set the mood of the story. I’m hoping my current novel captures the kind of dystopian world seen in Blade Runner, The Expanse, and parts of Andor. A new novel will require a new playlist, since it will likely have a different vibe, a different feel.

A key for me when writing prose is that the music not include lyrics. I have no problem with them when I’m writing code, but when I’m writing words, I find the lyrics can be a distraction. Some of the songs in my current playlist do include vocals, and I think I’m learning to tune out the words and just listen to the music. I haven’t removed them from this playlist, but I’m leaning towards them being deleted from the playlist. They can be a bit jarring when they appear.

This Is Me, Maybe Not You

The approach I have taken will not work for everyone. Some of what I do might be useful for others. Other parts will seem ‘wrong’ to people. I will not claim that I’ve captured the “secret sauce” for being a productive and creative writer. Partly because I’m still new to this. Partly because I’m not representative of all writers. No one is. What works for some will not work for others. But sometimes we can learn from others, and take what works from them, and leave what doesn’t. My goal is to remain open-minded enough to try new things, to help me to not just be ‘productive’, but to enjoy the act of writing at the same time. This isn’t meant to be ‘work’, even if I’m hoping to make something of a career of it. Most of my main career wasn’t ‘work’ either.

So this is an evolving thing, and I expect to add, drop, and modify elements of it. Some will be about revisiting the technological components. Some will be about the processes, the procedures, the rituals, finding what works (for now) and doesn’t work (for now). I don’t want to become beholden to something for any particular reason, either.

Winner!

I reached the NaNoWriMo goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, making me a “winner”, in that I was able to reach the goal. The story itself is a long way from finished. I estimate that I’m about 2/3rds of the way through the first draft of the story. I consider myself lucky that I haven’t hit any real bumps in the road to building out the novel. It would be tempting to say this is fairly easy, but of course, I’m nowhere near done, and I don’t really know if the story itself is all that good or compelling. I think it is, but I’m obviously biased.

Easing Off, A Little

While I might take my foot off the gas a little (in that I may not do much writing on weekends, and focus on writing during the week only), the story’s not done. I’ve finished one of the main turning points in the plot, and now the story shifts in focus and purpose. I’m hoping that the different layers in the story, which feature theme’s I’m exploring, are coming through.

Tools and Rituals That Help

Part of what has helped in meeting this goal, and now knowing how much time writing will take for me during the day, is how I’ve used used technology, but also some “process” if you will. I’ve been using the focus feature available on the Mac and iDevices to remove the distractions that come from new emails, text messages, and news alerts. I make sure to hide all the other apps I have on my Mac, so I’m not tempted to glance over at Twitter, my texts, and other information sources.

The only thing I have up is Scrivener (the tool I use for writing), a Google search page in case I need to look something up, the NaNoWriMo page with my stats and the running stopwatch (which I start when I’m writing) and the app I’m working on, Writer’s Assistant, which helps me with things like generating made-up character names.

I have a playlist I’ve built that sets the tone for the story (this one features music from Andor, Blade Runner, The Expanse, and The Martian) that I kick off at the start of each writing session. All of the steps I need to take before I start writing are on a little checklist I have in front of me. I don’t want to forget to do something (like start the music or the stopwatch) in my eagerness to get words on the page.

Just Write The Story

Part of this first pass on the novel is concentrating on getting the story down, even though it is rough, there are gaps, and there are times where I’m sure I’ve written way too much, and need to be more succinct. But I’m avoiding any meaningful editing at this point. That’s the next step, to go through the work and start to sort through what I’ve created. It’s then I will focus on fixing any issues with inconsistency, culling parts that aren’t adding to the story, or putting some parts of the story on a diet, say what needs to be said in a more compact way. This is unlike writing software, even though both are creative endeavours. This is a topic I will explore in further pieces down the road.

I’m also going to write up some thoughts on technology and writing, although obviously being a rookie at this type of creative writing, I’m not exactly speaking with any authority. But that has never stopped me before from expressing an opinion.

To those still working away on their own NaNoWriMo projects: keep at it. If this is your first time, like it is mine, you’ll find it satisfying to reach your goal.

New Domain and Mastodon Thoughts

Some may have noticed that vintrock.social is now a thing. I registered it because I’m toying with, maybe, hosting my own Mastodon instance. I figured I should grab it while it’s available, even if I don’t go down that route. For now I’ve pointed it at the main vintrock.com site.

Exploring Options

While I’m still on Twitter (both personally and with Vintrock), I’m exploring options. I’ve put myself on the waitlist for Post (here’s a link that, if you click and register through it, I get extra “points” or something to move up the queue. I won’t be insulted if you don’t bother, just putting it out there), but who knows how long until I get invited to sign up for real.

No, I’m not convinced Twitter is going to disappear anytime soon. Even with all the chaos and anarchy that Elon Musk is creating, Twitter will likely be around for a while. Sure, it may end up like MySpace (which still does exist), but it’s not going to disappear entirely. Okay, maybe it will, but we are a long way from that happening.

Mastodon

I have also joined a Mastodon server (@geoffkratz@mastodon.social), and I’m messing around with it. The concept is intriguing, but I’m not convinced that it’s going to be the “thing” that could challenge Twitter, let alone replace it. Of course, the adherents who have been on Mastodon for a while think otherwise.

The basic premise, and the way you use it, is virtually identical to Twitter. You create posts (they used to called them ‘toots’, a result of the site’s creator not being from North America and being familiar with some, er, cultural nuances). People can read them. Or not. They can be “reblogged” (that used to be called ‘boosted’, but was changed for no apparent reason). There are a few editing tools available that aren’t on Twitter, like being able to hide content that might be sensitive or a spoiler, so people have to click through to see it. Generally, though it’s very similar. You get a reverse-chronological scrolling list of things people have posted.

There are rudimentary search features, as well as ways to find out what’s happening in the rest of the Mastodon world. And it’s here that the troubles begin, and will likely be an impediment to growth and adoption.

The Fediverse

The problem is that there are two Mastodons. There’s Mastodon the technology, and “Mastodon” in the form of the various instances using that technology. People conflate the two regularly. There’s no way to “join Mastodon” per se, because there isn’t just one “Mastodon” out there. There are a bunch of them, and there more appearing regularly. And then there are sites that use Mastodon, but aren’t “Mastodon” in the sense the rest of the communities think.

A Mastodon server, or instance, can connect to other instances and join what is called the “fediverse”. Basically, the servers are “federated”, each running independently with their own community of users and their own policies on content and activities, but still interconnected. Their message traffic can be shared with other instances. This allows someone to follow an account on a different server, and you’ll see their posts, reblogs, etc. This allows groups to set up their own private instances when it comes to access (only people invited to join can use it), but still interact with the wider community.

You can, of course, set up your Mastodon instance as stand-alone, and not join the fediverse. Truth Social is using the Mastodon platform for its service, and it is not part of the fediverse. The founders of Mastodon aren’t happy about it, but because the software is free and open-source, anyone can download and use it. This, of course, has created confusion, since some people think that, since Truth Social uses Mastodon, it is somehow “part of” Mastodon. Truth Social also likely runs on Linux on servers powered by Intel processors. That doesn’t mean that Linux and Intel have anything to do with Truth Social and it’s content or users. So Truth Social uses Mastodon, but it isn’t “Mastodon” in the conventional sense.

It’s this fediverse, and the distributed nature of Mastodon that forms the crux of the problem when it comes to adoption by casual users. Step one in getting on to “Mastodon” (the service)  is “choose a server”. For technically-inclined people, that’s probably not a big deal. But for normal human beings, that introduces a challenge. Which server is “best”, where “best” is different for each individual? Sure, you can move your account to another server if you find the one you’re on isn’t working for you, or isn’t to your liking. But while you keep your followers and who you follow, your posts don’t follow with you. And just from reviewing the instructions, moving isn’t nearly as simple as experienced Mastodon users would have you believe.

One Service Is Simple

Most people like simplicity. They have enough things to do in their day without having to figure out the complexities (minor as they might seem) of trying to decide where to start. You go to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or whatever, sign up, and everyone else is there, or might appear later. It’s really easy to do.

Having to pick a server is the first complication. Then, if you’re trying to track down people on other servers, well good luck with that. You have to know which server they might be on, and there are dozens (with more appearing every day or so). The discovery elements of Mastodon are primitive, and in some cases non-existent. And that is likely to hold it back.

They’re still going to see some growth for a while as Elon thrashes about more-or-less at random. But I expect the growth to slow or stop. Part of it will be people simply abandoning their interest the moment the “pick a server” thing is encountered. You’ve just created friction. Then, as they find that servers they pick are full, or invite-only, or are performance limited, again, they’ll abandon their interest and move on.

Then There’s The Community

The server I’m on is mastodon.social, and it was the first server that was created. What I’ve found, so far, is that the people and groups on it (and many I’m following for now) are showing some trends. There are a lot of posts about how Mastodon is superior because of the fediverse thing (without providing more than half-baked reasons to back the assertion). Some are saying that no server should grow beyond a certain point, again based on ideas that don’t seem completely thought through.

There is a lot of outrage and indignation at, well, almost everything. Rich people are bad. White people are bad. Some new thing is uncovered that is the singlemost worst and awful-evilist thing to have happened. Outrage of the shootings in Colorado I get. People died that should be alive, and they were killed by someone who is evil, period. But the whole “colleges associated with on-line gambling” thing? Yeah, that’s a problem, but the level of outrage I’m seeing over it is beyond the pale.

From time to time, there are also people who decide to shame new users. They bully or berate them for “not doing things the right way here”, or because they did something they way they would on Twitter. Hmm, I wonder why that would be? I’ve seen reports of accounts being suspended or deleted because a single post violated some rule on content that apparently wasn’t described very well (or, in one case, that the site owner simply “didn’t like it” with no explanation on how to remedy the transgression). Since each server has its own rules, and those rules aren’t necessarily stable, it makes for a bad experience. And single bad experience is all it takes to lose that person as a potential customer forever.

Questions about Stability and Performance

Some servers have adequate performance. Some are buried almost instantly because they’ve undersized the resources for the server. And any instance will cost money, even if you’re running it out of your home or office (Internet access isn’t free, kids). So how do you pay for this?

Most servers either offer a way for you to donate to them directly, or via a platform like Patreon. To add to this whole “fediverse” confusion is the presence of the original Mastodon Patreon account. You can give money to it, but that money only goes to the original core sites and the main developers of the technology. It isn’t spread across the other instances. This means you have to track down the Patreon (or whichever) for your server. With Twitter having been free to use, I expect very few of the new people will donate to the instances they’ve joined.

But the platforms are, for now, anti-advertising. Some are proud, almost obnoxiously so as they brag about it on a near-regular basis, of the fact they aren’t doing this for profit, that they aren’t “greedy”. Fine, if you can make a go of it, more power to you. But I’m expecting that there will quickly be limits on what people will pay, and how many will bother. Twitter’s problems don’t stem from their need to grow and be profitable. They stem from larger problems, that have nothing to do with the money.

Other Services Are Coming (Maybe)

Apparently Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, is creating something called “bluesky” that is being described as a “social protocol”, but supposedly isn’t meant to be a Twitter competitor (so it may sound like Mastodon, perhaps). Tumblr is apparently looking for developers, and is appealing to the now ex-Twitter folks to contact them. They may be trying to create their own form of social network beyond the blogging platform they have now. I’m sure others will start to emerge from the woodwork as well.

Twitter is Unique

What Twitter does, and how it works, is unique. It isn’t perfect, not by a long-shot, and it has been something of a dumpster fire for over a decade now, depending on what parts of Twitter you interact with. I’ve managed to avoid that myself, through the use of Tweetdeck instead of the normal web interface or official apps. I don’t see ads, and I only see posts from who I follow, and things they re-tweet. And that’s it.

It’s questionable whether you can effectively replicate Twitter without encountering the same junk that Twitter now features. And perhaps you wouldn’t want to. What a new Twitter-like system might look like, I don’t know. I haven’t thought that much about it. I’m not convinced Mastodon is it. We’ll see what Post is like, if I ever get invited to join. I don’t depend much on Twitter, but I do use it, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

NaNoWriMo and the Halfway Point

I just passed the halfway point for NaNoWriMo 2022, and as with the previous week, so far so good. I’ve been able to meet or slightly exceed my personal objective of at least 2,000 words per day, and I’ve managed to write over 37,000 words so far. My story continues to grow, and I’m making notes to review when I go back to edit. The NaNoWriMo tool for tracking writing history and word counts estimates I’ll hit 50,000 words by the 21st. The actual first draft will certainly be a lot longer than that, and while I will probably stop trying to write every single day (maybe take a break on weekends), the work doesn’t stop at 50,000 words.

Just Write Something

For now, I’m focused on just getting something out, even though I know it needs a lot of work. The point is to get the first draft, rough as it will be, down. I have a bunch of ideas on how I want to mold and shape the finished story, and I’m making sure to write those down so I don’t forget. My main character has also transformed some, and some of the supporting cast are now getting their own stories, their own perspectives. They still don’t have enough of a unique voice. Their words and dialog are rather generic. But I feel good about having something to build on.

The story itself is growing deeper and more complex, more nuanced in a way. I feel pretty good about where it is, and where I think it will go.

The Writer’s Assistant

I’m glad I started working on an app I’m calling Writer’s Assistant. I’m using it as a way to collect some tools that will be useful to me for writing science fiction. I do expect that some of the features will eventually (and hopefully) be useful for other genres. I’ll also be adding to it as I find new features I think will help me or other writers. I haven’t decided if I’m going to charge for the app or give it away for free, assuming it goes on the Mac App Store at all.

The main feature I’m using is one that generates random strings of vowels and consonants (using simple, configurable rules) to help generate names for characters. There are other features that will follow, but having something that I can use to generate names that aren’t variants of “Bob” and “Jane”, to give the story a truly other-worldly vibe, has allowed me to focus on the story, instead of spending time trying to dream up names (and making sure they don’t all start with “Z” or some other pattern).

The Work Carries On

I’m going to keep on keeping on. I haven’t hit any bumps, or found myself stuck, and for that I consider myself fortunate. It helps that I have a sense of the story I want to tell, and that’s the planning side of me. But I keep my ‘plan’ just open-ended enough that the ‘seat of the pants’ writer can still blossom. I’m definitely in the middle of the “planner” vs. “panster” debate (which I had never heard of until I started this thing). This works for me. Other approaches work for other people. You do you. I’m going to carry on, happy with my approach so far.

 

NaNoWriMo 2022: One Week In

My first week participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2022 ended yesterday, and so far, so good. I’m well on my way to my 50,000 word goal, clocking in nearly 20,000 words as of this morning. I feel good about the story itself. This is only my second attempt at writing a novel, and if it goes well, will hopefully be the first one I publish. The first one I wrote a few years ago comes with some intellectual property baggage, so it can wait.

Of course, I still have about 3 weeks to go, so who knows if I can maintain this pace. So far, I’m able to exceed my personal target of 2,000 words every day. It takes me about an hour to write that (that probably sounds like I’m bragging, but I’m not trying to, honestly). Of course, those are 2,000 “first draft” words, and there is a lot of work to be done after the first draft of the novel is complete. I’m pretty sure I can expect at least 2 months of editing and revision on my own for every month I take to write the first draft, but that’s a guess on my part. I have no idea how long it will take when I work with an independent editor.

My Secret(?) to Productivity

I believe there are a few reasons why I’m able to get that much done on the first go-round. The first is that I can type quickly, and more importantly, I can touch type. Back in high school, in grade 10, I took a typing course (in Alberta at the time, it was Typing 10. I believe it’s called Keyboarding now). For the first 3 months, we learned on manual typewriters. We were able to get some time on the electric typewriters (IBM Selectrics) for the last few weeks. The goal was to build up both speed and accuracy. The result is that I can type about as fast as I can form the thoughts I want to get down on the screen. It means I’m not having to wait for my fingers to catch up.

The second reason is the way I go about creative writing, which is similar to how I approach writing software. Before I begin to write, I have planned out in my mind the next part of the story. I will go over it in my head a few times, playing with ideas and concepts, and getting the basic plot points and dialog figured out, even if only roughly, in advance. The writing part is now about capturing that thinking, and refining it as well as filling in any details.

Unlike with software, where the goal is to get it right the first time, with the creative writing, I’m not trying to obsess about getting the story perfect on the first go. I want to capture the story as I see it now, knowing it will change when I go back and review and revise what I’ve done. Then I’ll revise some sections, drop some, add new ones, and completely re-write others. I’ll have a few versions of the novel done before I’m ready to send it to an editor. That’s the step my previous novel didn’t take, at least not yet.

Independent Feedback Required

This one will go to an independent editor, someone who will look at it with a critical eye. I will also rely on some of my friends and family (I did use some for my first as-yet unpublished novel). These are people I know will give me honest, and if required brutal, feedback and comments. They won’t say “oh wow, it’s great” if it actually isn’t. Then I go back and apply any fixes when it comes to typos, grammar problems, and just plain weird phrasing. I also incorporate the feedback and opinions where I think it makes sense (and maybe ignore some, because they would alter the story in ways I don’t want it to go, but only after some discussion on those points).

The goal for this work is to eventually get it published. What road I take for that is still to be determined. I might self-publish, I might try the traditional route. If nothing else, self-publishing is the fallback position. There’s no harm in trying to take the more traditional path first.

However, to publish I first need to finish. And that’s the focus for now.

NaNoWriMo Started Today

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) started today, and I’m participating. The goal of the event is to write at least 50,000 words of a first-draft novel in 30 days. You “win” by hitting the 50,000 word total. It’s basically an attempt to spur some people who think they want to be writers to commit to something. The entire event is meant to be upbeat and positive, and the NaNoWriMo organization has many different tools available for current and aspiring writers to join communities, and find support. There are local chapters (there’s one for Calgary) that hold virtual and in-person events.

I’m participating for the first time this year. My project is a science fiction novel titled Ashes of Outpost. It’s set on an old commercial, transportation, and mining facility on an asteroid in the Bohen system in my fictional Unimanse universe that I’m continually evolving. So far, I’m off to a good start, with over 3,700 words (and counting) on day one. Part of what makes writing easier for me, personally, is that I can type quickly and reasonably accurately. It means that my fingers can keep up with my thoughts and imagination as I craft the story, and I’m not fighting with the mechanical work of getting words down on the electronic page. But I’m not so foolish to think I can keep that pace up forever, and I’m going to hit snags and roadblocks. But so far, it’s encouraging.

We’ll see how this goes, but it does look promising. Once it’s done, I’ll have a better sense of whether I would recommend the event to current and aspiring writers (and I still fall very much in the “aspiring” category right now). I like the idea, though, and that’s a start.

Dark Bubbles

The Proposal

I had to admit, I didn’t think we’d get this far. Granted, there was still a long way and many, many more years to go. But to even get far enough to allow this next meeting to happen was a pleasant surprise. I had fully expected us to fail, quite frankly. Not because me or my team aren’t smart, imaginative people. We are. But we were pushing the limits of physics, and when you take on physics, guess who usually wins? Here’s a hint: it isn’t the carbon-based lifeform trying to bend or break the rules.

But we had bent or broken those rules, at least on a relatively microscopic scale and in a lab. A new type of faster-than-light drive. On paper, it appeared possible. In the lab, we saw promise. The challenge, of course, is finding sufficient energy, and one of the best is some form of black hole. But people tend to be a bit squeamish about creating black holes on the surface of a planet, even incredibly small ones. For us to proceed requires an off-planet research lab and fabrication shop. And that means money, and sadly, the combined retirement savings of the entire team just isn’t enough to buy us our own asteroid, let alone build the facility we need.

Okay, okay, we didn’t actually bend or break any rules of physics. This is science, not fantasy after all. What we did was discover some new properties when it came to dark matter. More importantly, we found a way to use those properties to travel faster than the speed of light. Well, “found” in the sense that a series of small lab experiments confirmed some aspects of our new approach, but we couldn’t scale because of energy limitations.

We were tempted to just scale everything up to what we needed, but a few (including me) realized that blowing off a chunk of the crust of one of the home planets would be categorized as “bad”. Really bad. As in devastatingly, “you’ve probably killed us all” bad. It was thought best to avoid that possibility, if only because it wouldn’t look good on the old curriculum vitae. “Fifth Month, Year 1475 Local Reckoning, Planet Brother: managed to destroy a planet in a lab incident, which resulted from mishandling a small black hole while attempting to revolutionize faster than light propulsion”. Yeah, not exactly a brilliant way to advance your career.

So, here I am, catching my breath and collecting my thoughts before I have to walk through the door to the conference room. I know who is in there. The heads of the science and engineering departments at the university we had partnered with, and whose lab facilities we had borrowed early on. At least two deputy ministers of something. And the head of an investment group with billions to spend. Some of these people I know. The one I don’t know is the one with the money, and I need to convince them more than anyone else. But the others? Well, they can potentially end this project if I don’t have them on board as well.

Deep breath. And stride into the room with confidence. And for diety’s sake, don’t trip on anything. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Good afternoon everyone” I say as I approach the group. Try to sound confident. Try to sound confident. Stop repeating yourself in your head.

Everyone turns to face me. The star of the show. Hands are extended, greetings exchanged, introduction performed. I don’t do this often, but I do it often enough that I think, so far, I’m exuding confidence and competence. Just don’t exude anything else.

“Well, let’s get started.” More confidence. Too many would ask if everyone would please take their seats, or say ‘shall we get started?’. Ug. Weak. Be assertive. Take command. Never let them see you sweat. I sure hope I’m not sweating now.

For the next half an hour, I present our work. What we’ve done, what we know, the questions to be answered. I finish with a brief outline of the next steps: build a research facility on an asteroid the System Managers have said is suitable for our work. Far enough away from anything they care about, particularly the home worlds of Brother and Sister. Close enough that we don’t spend years getting people and material to and from the place. The rock itself is solid, stable, and is of limited value for its minerals. The last item in my presentation: the bill. Money we don’t have right now. And now, questions. Here we go.

There is a pause. A long one. Everyone is thinking apparently. Some scan the handouts and the notes they made. Mister Harace, the man with the money, speaks first.

“So, Doctor Fuhojaz, this new drive system. Why exactly do we need it? We already have two different technologies we use today. What’s special about this one?”

It was in the presentation. Oh well, probably just testing us.

“A good question, Mister Harace. The two drive systems we have now are either expensive and complex to build, or expensive and complicated to operate. The transit drive system isn’t even a drive system, in the sense that it’s a ship-mounted device. The energy requirements to fold space-time to allow the transit make it prohibitively expensive and large to carry around. That limits us to fixed transit points in space. That works to get a ship from one place to another. But without a corresponding transit point at the other location, now you’re stuck.”

I pause for effect. Everyone around the table is nodding slightly in agreement.

“The foldwarp system is what we use to get back from new locations, and we generally install it on military and exploration ships to allow flexibility and freedom of movement. But it’s a rather nasty drive system, and requires a lot of fuel to feed the nano-blackhole that powers it. The technology works, but it isn’t ideal for some applications” I explain. I’m trying really hard to not sound condescending, since this should be obvious in the materials I presented. Oh well.

Mister Harace sits forward. I guess I got his attention. He presses on. “So, this new system you’re proposing? Does it replace any of these existing drive technologies?”

Ug. Again, it’s in the handouts. But I need his money. “It won’t replace the transit drive network. That works well for established travel lanes. But what this could replace is the foldwarp. The slightly larger micro-blackhole still needs the same shielding, but the fuel consumption is far, far less, and we can use fuel that’s less, um, unsavoury to the passengers, crew, and cargo, meaning we can cut back on the shielding we need for fuel storage.”

I pause again, to let that sink it. Then I continue. “The only downside, at least in the early versions, is that we are limited in terms of the physical size of the ship. Basically, it has to fit inside the bubble we create that we then push through the gaps in the dark matter that holds the universe together. Over time, we think we can increase the bubble size, allowing for bigger ships.”

Another pause. Let them think about it.

“How small?” Mr. Harace asks.

“About the size of the most commonly-used exporation ships. They usually have a crew of up to six, plus room for another six or so passengers, plus their food, spare parts, and whatnot. Militarily, all of the corvettes and some of the smaller destroyer classes will work. And the drive system should be small enough, physically, that we can give heavy fighters FTL, something they lack today.”

That got his attention. Military applications still ring a special chord with some investors. And I know this going in. Momma didn’t raise no dummies, and I did my homework. These guys have some business interests involving military procurement. But the academics in the room apparently are feeling left out. Doctor Gyka, the head of the engineering department, is asserting himself.

“Jivor, er, Doctor Fuhojaz, what about safety? What are the failure modes of this technology?”

I felt myself starting to bristle at this question, but realize that is unfair. He probably wouldn’t know because we haven’t worked with the engineering guys. Most of our time has been with the physics group, since this is a physics problem, at least to start. But, an answer is required.

“Another great question, and certainly one we’ve considered. Any time you’re working with singularities, even small ones, there are risks. Controlling and limiting the fuel flow to ‘feed’ the object is critical. Too much, and you get more energy than can be contained. More than a few foldwarp drives have exploded because of fuel regulator issues” I respond.

“Yes, but you’re using a much larger black hole here” he pressed.

“True, but that means we need considerably less fuel, making it easier for us to monitor and control it. I won’t pretend there aren’t risks, here. Any system where you’re basically controlling energy is inherently dangerous. Even a wood fire comes with risk. But the benefits, I believe, outweigh the risks. And we take steps to minimize or contain the risk as much as we can.”

This back and forth continues for another hour or so. The physics head throws a few softballs, since they stand to benefit from this, but want to appear somewhat neutral. The engineering head presses a little, but backs off. They know that they will get some goodies from this as well. The deputy assistant ministers of whatever lob a few questions, nothing that can’t be handled.

It’s Mister Harace. He’s clearly interested, but it’s a lot of money we’re asking for. And we know that most budgets are, in reality, an educated guess. Even allowing for over-runs, we’ll probably need more than we initially asked for. Thank the overlords for the sunk cost fallacy.

Eventually, the questions slow and then stop. I’m asked to give them the room, so they can talk amongst themselves. I thank them for their time, gather my materials, and walk out to the hallway, closing the door behind me. And the rest of my team has decided to show up, and congregate near the conference room.

Dowor, the lone engineer on the team (for now), looks nervous. They always look nervous. “So, did we get it?”

“They’re talking about it now” I reply, grasping their upper arm trying to be reassuring.

Jymu is seated on one of the benches in the hall, staring sullenly at the floor. This is one of her ‘down’ months. The ‘up’ months are better, but we’ve all learned to live with what we get.

The team and I chat nervously, glancing toward the conference room door from time to time. A half an hour passes, and Loqos’ partner, Cirobi, joins us. She then leaves briefly, returning with drinks and snacks for all of us while we wait. Another half an hour passes with nothing but murmurs behind the conference room door. Now even I’m getting nervous, although nothing compared to Dowor. They seem to be getting more and more anxious, but I can’t think of any way to calm them down. Cirobi, though, seems to have some skill. She manages to get them to rein in their emotions.

The door eventually opens, and the head of the physics department beckons me back in. A deep breath, exhale, and stride in with confidence again. Always look confident.

“Jivor, please, take a seat” the physics lead asks, gesturing toward the empty chair at the head of the table.

Mister Harace clears his throat. I can’t read his facial expression. I bet he’s really good at daria.

“Doctor Fuhojaz. Jivor. Might as well get used to some familiarity.” Mister Harace begins.  “I have decided that we will provide the funding you have asked for. The university will also contribute a portion, and we’ll be releasing the funds in tranches based on milestones. We’ll meet in a few days to determine what those milestones are. But this looks promising, and I want to make it happen.”

I can barely contain myself. I want to dance and prance and yell and whoop and laugh all at once. Well, there will be time for that later. For now, control. Stay cool. Look pleased, but try not to grin like a complete idiot.

“That is excellent, excellent news. My team is actually waiting in the hall. Let me bring them in and you can meet the minds that are helping us make this happen.” I stand, and head to the door, hoping the rest of the team can show some restraint. I suspect they won’t.

The New Research Station

It has been a long five years. I think I see a few gray hairs hiding in amongst my otherwise jet black mop. It was hard, there were setbacks, we went over budget (twice), and they nearly killed the whole deal (twice). We continued to experiment in the lab planetside, refining, exploring, and getting ready for the day we could use proper energy sources, and have the necessary power levels to make this work.

The new engineering team has been busy during that time, too. Their first job was to help design the lab and test facilities for our new home, located on an asteroid with out a name, just a string of letters and numbers. We’ve named it Dexi, in honour of Mister Hirace, more completely Dexiloniq Hirace, who sadly died a year ago. It was his support that helped us through the rougher patches with the funding groups, and without him and the money he was able to obtain, this wouldn’t have happened.

He was the first person we lost as a group, and he truly became part of the team. Sure, he had other projects he had to pay attention to. But we got a lot of his time, and he made the effort to come out to the asteroid, Dexi, and stayed with us in the temporary, and less than savoury, living quarters we had. Jymu took Dexiloniq’s death hard. But then, she takes a lot of losses hard, particularly since it happened during one of her ‘down’ phases, when her emotional and mental rollercoaster was at its nadir.

Mister Harace had become part of what the newer people on the project called The Founders. That group included me, Dower, Jymu, and Loqos to start. Mister Harace was added very early on. Cirobi was eventually included by the others in the monicker as it was clear she was an important reason why some of the more entertaining and enriching elements of work existed. Plus she had this incredible ability to source lab equipment that was hard to get. It wasn’t just because she found the latest vidgame console to add to the common spaces.

The first four of us, and later six, got closer as the project proceeded and construction at the asteroid got underway. We all spent a lot of time out on that rock. The rest of the team held us in awe, although frankly that seemed silly. There was some impressive talent in the people we recruited, some far more skilled than any of us. But we were The Founders, and you could hear those capital letters somehow. We weren’t just ‘the founders’. We were ‘The Founders’. It was awesome and intimidating at the same time.

But it’s finished. The Advanced High Energy Research Centre (yeah, boring name, not my call) was officially opened last week. There were dignitaries, and lots of speeches, one of which I had to give. I’ve been named the Facility Director along with being Lead Scientist, so that means less time in the lab for me. But we’ve built up a much larger team, and amazingly, I still know all their names. I even know some of their spouses or partners names, and (a true miracle) the names of some of their children. It has been a bit of a blow to the ego that none of the newest were named Jivor. Oh well. Immortality will have to take another form.

Here I sit, at my new desk in my new office with an expansive view of space. Rank has its privileges I suppose. The team, and our new arrivals, are hard at work on the final touches for their lab spaces. Oh yeah, the engineers. I got side-tracked. Well, after the design effort for the facility, we put them work designing and building the test drones. These small spaceships would carry the new darkspace drive prototypes and test articles. They will be remotely piloted, so we can test the drives on a small scale without risking people’s lives. The engineers really wanted to get started on the phase two test drones, which would be a lot larger, but those needed to wait until we had our facility in place. It was a logistics problem that, fortunately, Cirobi helped me solve.

We’ve found jobs for virtually all the spouses and partners that wanted one. We need a lot of non-science people to help support the work. As a result, we have several new chefs, a couple of medical doctors and nurses, and at least two project managers. That’s were Cirobi comes in. She’s proven adept at managing all the “other stuff”. Making sure there’s food to eat, and that holes are patched, and broken switches replaced, and we have new videos to watch. She has a real knack for keeping people and projects organized, a genius at what I call “herding qars and soothing teenage egos”. Loqos, her partner, got his doctorate (well deserved), and I hope he understands how lucky he is to have Cirobi in his life. I’m hoping he steps up and proposes they formally pairbond.

The focus is now to shift from theory to application. One of our toys includes the new particle manipulator. These things are expensive, but necessary, since they, among other functions, are used to create the tiny blackholes that power things like transit and foldwarp drives. And now ours will make the singularities we need for our own drive, the darkspace drive. These machines, of course, come with some risk, as does the work we’ll do with the resulting products they create. And if it goes horribly bad, we’ve blown up Dexi. And ourselves, I suppose. At least the planets are safe.

Ah, and here comes Cirobi now. She says she has to discuss some logistical thing or somesuch, I don’t remember. And I watch as she enters my office. She is so captivating. But, focus. We have work to do.

The hour we spend discussing the supply issue is both too long and too short. Too long, because it’s dull, dull, dull. But too short because it’s so nice to spend some time with someone who isn’t another science geek like myself. And I know that there won’t be a vast dating pool available out here on our rock. But, she’s already committed to Loqos, and they are a happy couple. I will absolutely not interfere in that. Loqos is an important part of the team, and a good friend.

The Happy Accident

A result of the lab explosion two years ago was an incredible discovery. Wait, I should probably say that in a way that doesn’t trivialize the event. A fire and explosion in High Energy Laboratory Number Two, which put five in hospital and killed three, resulted in a fortuitous discovery that will change sublight travel. Yes, we’re still working on a new faster than light drive. But this was a happy accident. Damn, trivializing again. It was a serendipitous invention.

The accident actually claimed four lives. Three in the explosion, which included the life of our close friend and collaborator (and Founder) Loqos. But the loss of Loqos also resulted in Jymu ending her own life, her grief tearing her very soul to shreds. The accident happened during one of Jymu’s emotional low-points, a time when she was most vulnerable.

The five that were hospitalized stayed for varying lengths of time. The last just got out a few months ago, and moved back to  Sister. As did three of the other survivors. That left one who decided to soldier on.

We’ve had people come and go over the past six years. Some because they had done what they wanted, and were ready for a new challenge. A few because living on an isolated rock in space wasn’t nearly as interesting or exciting as they thought. Still others because that isolation was just too much to take. A few we had to terminate, they just didn’t work out. Then the accident two years ago, which ground everything to a halt while the investigators asked their questions and poked at the ruins for the first year. The next year was spent writing their report. We were able to restart some work, but most of it had to wait to see what would come next.

We had the funding to keep everyone paid, but we lost easily ten percent or so simply because they weren’t interested in waiting around. I don’t know, getting paid to not work isn’t an entirely horrible proposition, even if it was because we lost some good friends. But many were worried about what they perceived as a gap in their experience. Others were afraid of being associated with a project that appeared likely to end in failure, not because the technology didn’t work, but because the facility was too dangerous. And if the facility was too dangerous, maybe the technology was, too, and shouldn’t be developed further.

Personally, the loss of Loqos was hard. Very hard. He and Cirobi had just been formally pairbonded a few months ago and were talking about having their first child. Loqos had worked very hard, not just for us, but for himself, Cirobi, and his family, first to attain his doctorate, then on the project. His team was working on a key part of the drive system when the accident happened. I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong, and it didn’t take me two years to figure it out.

So here I sit, on one of the benches outside our main conference room while I wait with Cirobi, Dowor, and a group of various government officials, and representatives from our backers. At last we are all called into the room, and there are little signs on the table with our names. Cirobi, Dowor, and myself are to sit around the head of the table, me at the apex. None of the outsiders there have spoken to us beyond a few perfunctory greetings and introductions.

At the far end sat someone whose name I didn’t bother to remember, and they were clearly the one guiding the meeting.

“Very well, shall we get started?” Ug. That weak phrase. This was going to go well. They continued. “Thank you. As you know, we are here to review the results of the investigation into the explosion in High Energy Laboratory Number Two. The lead investigator, Master Tyha, will be presenting their findings. Master?”

The Master cleared their throat. “Thank you, Administrator. I’ll spare everyone the suspense, as well as leave off recounting the outcome. We all know what happened, no need for some present to relive that.” They paused. “The explosion occurred in Test Reactor Three as a result of an unexpected overload due to irregular fuel delivery.” I was about to speak, but the Master cut me off. “Yes, I know, it shouldn’t be possible. There are failsafes in place. But those failsafes had been disabled. A review of the device logs show they had been disabled several times over the course of the previous three years.”

That started about the time a new person, Fypex, had joined the team. And he had been warned the first two times he disabled the failsafe mechanisms, since it threw off an alarm. But…

“The code that would normally trigger the alarms had been altered to disable the alarm. Ordinarily, this can’t happen, as there are security protocols in place to prevent unauthorized changes. But those, too, had been overridden. Clearly the individual who did this had experience.”

Okay, time for a question, and I won’t be ignored. “So, how was this possible? The person who normally worked that station wasn’t noted for any coding skills.”

“Very good, we thought the same thing. A review of their work and training experience didn’t include any of that. But, it turns out, they didn’t disclose everything.”

For the next hour, the Master explained who Fypex really was, and it turns out they weren’t just a physicist, they had a past that involved breaking into secure digital facilities, some just for fun, some for profit. Fypex wasn’t even their real name, and while they did have formal training in physics, the transcripts and references we got were fake, from a different institution.

We were asked, and spent an hour explaining, why the failsafes might have disabled. From the notes we had, Fypex/not-Fypex was working on some idea he had concocted, although possibly at the direction of Loqos. They were apparently working on something, but no one outside of those two and possibly the other dead scientist knew what it was.

With that out of the way, we then discussed the need for changes, more rigorous screening of all personnel, including all existing staff, and implementation of further safety protocols. That we were even talking about that was encouraging, since it meant we could keep going. If they were going to shut us down, there was no point in talking about any of it.

It was the last change that was a bit of a bombshell. A new position would be created, Chief of Operations. They would oversee all of the personnel screening, and review safety procedures and make sure they were followed. For a moment, it looked like Cirobi might get the job, because frankly, she would be good at it. Instead, they introduced the new person. They had sat through the entire meeting silently, watching, observing, like an ambush predator waiting for their time to strike. Idza Novyvaq was not to be toyed with.

Their voice had a smooth fluid quality, almost sensuous. But their words were spoken in a way that grated on the nerves. It was an odd sensation. “Jivor, you are still in charge.” Okay, an acknowledgement that I’m nominally the boss. I had a feeling that wasn’t entirely true.

The meeting appeared about to end when Dowor spoke up. “Aren’t we going to talk about the discovery Loqos made? What motivated the experiment that caused the explosion?”

Okay, that was a surprise. Normally Dowor was silent. If they could have hidden under the table, they would have.

“What discovery?” I asked.

“I was reviewing his notes. Including his private notes. Cirobi let me see them. Fypex was pushing the edges for a reason. Loqos had discovered something useful for sublight drives.”

“What, a new sublight drive?” one of the political drones asked.

“Nope, something new that can be added to our current sublight engines. Doesn’t even require a new power source. We can retrofit.” Dowor replied.

“Okay, out with it. You’re not normally one for suspense.”

Dowor cleared their throat. “He found a way to create a weaker bubble, similar to the darkbubble for FTL, that eliminates the relativistic effects of sublight travel. His whole team had been pressing at the edges. They had a series of small mishaps. Fypex was the pushing their equipment the hardest, but it was possible the other work they were trying could have ended in the same result. Loqos knew it, but if his idea worked, it would remove an irritant with sublight travel. Sorry Cirobi” Dowor felt bad having to out their friend as also being a rule-breaker.

I thought for a moment while the rest of the room murmured and mumbled in surprise. “Okay, okay. Calm down. Dowor, let’s review those notes and see what we have. And see if we can indeed create the effect described.” Dowor nodded in agreement.

Our backer representative was all smiles. “And if it works…” they started.

“Then we’ve just gained even more commercially from this work.”

Predictions Confirmed

We’ve spent the last year doing less on faster than light, but more on other important things. We built a new lab to replace the old one. Sadly, we had to use a new location, and the crater that was the Lab Two is still there. The wreckage was removed at least. And our facility now has a graveyard. Cirobi insisted that Loqos’ ashes be interred on Dexi, as did the families of the other victims.

But we put together one team and, after implementing the new safety protocols, and a lot of arguing with Idza (that guy is lucky to still have his teeth), we began to explore what we called “the Loqos Effect”. Using his notes, we were able to reconstruct the experiments he was conducting. This time, though, we were able to avoid going over some limits, because while Loqos was a physicist, there were engineering elements that he didn’t quite understand. Dowor did, now that he knew what the goal was.

Here we are, a year later, and we now have the Loqos Generator, an add-on to existing sublight drive systems. It creates a weaker form of the darkbubble (a lot weaker), but it isolates the ship from relativistic effects. The bubble, though, is small, so how do we shield larger vessels? We create multiple, overlapping Loqos Effect bubbles. They do draw some power, and some ships will have to upgrade their fusion reactors. But it uses far less power than the FTL version of the same effect.

Of course, in that year we didn’t just work on this new technology, as I mentioned. I spent a lot of time arguing with Idza. Oddly, he didn’t fight often with Cirobi, and I almost got the impression he was trying to woo her. That was grating, to say the least. It seemed to me, though, that she was rebuffing his advances. Good. I mean, good for her.

The time I spend with Cirobi is welcome. Sure, we have to work together a lot during the day, but we also spend more and more time together after hours, usually with Dowor as well. Is it inappropriate to have feelings for your dead friend’s spouse? And did I mention that dating opportunities on an asteroid filled largely with asocial scientists is limited? Adding to the challenge of “a normal life” was being months away from any place worth visiting, and anywhere from forty to three hundred light minutes from any kind of contact with friends and family on Brother or Sister.

The frustration of Idza is wearing, and everything he does makes us slow down. I get the need for safety. There’s a crater outside that reminds all of us of that every day. There’s prudent, and there’s overly cautious. We can’t spend our lives motionless, wrapped in bubblepaper, while nutrients are pumped directly into our systems. To make a rezaxal, you have to crack a few feps. We just have to make sure those feps aren’t people.

The Explosion

It’s been four more years. Idza is gone. He kept imposing more and more restrictions, and it got to the point where, three years ago, all of the senior staff, me included, were boarding shuttles to return to Brother to confront the financial backers. That mutiny was short-lived, though, as the backers came to their senses, informed by Cirobi about what was going to happen. They terminated Idza’s contract, and expanded Cirobi’s duties to include personnel and safety reviews. She hired a small staff that still could irritate, but they were willing to find a way to work together. Idza was “no” without exceptions, and that was harming our ability to hire people (apparently everyone was now a security risk) as well as get work done.

While all this drama unfolded, we were still able to get some work done. The biggest advancement was fitting the first prototype drive systems in the smaller drones created all those years ago. They had been languishing in their hangars, waiting patiently for the day they could perform their duties. Yeah, of course they were patient. They were machines. They had nothing better to do, and no way of knowing what was happening anyways.

We blew up a few of them in the first tests. It was disappointing and spectacular to watch, all at the same time. It also means we had to send out other, newly fabricated drones, to clean up the debris. It seems obvious in retrospect, but all those blown up bits of metal and plasmeld were going to present a hazard to navigation. That was one of those “smack my head” kind of moments, because the second drone that exploded was destroyed, not by the drive system, but by an impact from debris of the first drone. Duh!

It was the fifth try where the test ship blinked out of conventional space-time, and a few seconds later emerged where it was supposed to. It had just travelled five times the speed of light. It used less fuel that a foldwarp engine would have used, and far less energy than the large fixed transit points. We didn’t need to fold space-time, we could just slip through the cracks. Cirobi and I celebrated that test, just us, later that day. It just was drinks and dancing. Don’t get pervy about it.

The engineers fabricated a new series of drone ships, larger than the first generation. But they could hold a larger drive and power unit. And we kept testing. We lost a few, but each time, we learned something. The generation two drones each completed dozens of trips at varying speeds and durations. We knew, while testing, that using a real ship was the next step.

It took us a year to acquire three smaller ships, and convert two of them for automated operation. The time had come to try the drive on a bigger ship, but we still weren’t ready to put a crew on board. Cirobi’s negotiation to acquire three personal yachts, ships that were no longer economically viable because they weren’t “good enough” (translation: they were out of fashion) for rich folk, and they weren’t suitable for commercial operations. They were big enough to hold the larger prototype drives, but still small enough to fit within the darkbubble that we could create.

The first ship died in a fiery explosion that became a meme on the newsmesh. The image of the ship shattering into a billion sparkling pieces (which took about a month for the cleanup drones to deal with) replayed over and over. It was funny and embarrassing, all at the same time. Cirobi and I shed some tears together after that one. She had become attached to what she saw as “her ships”.

The second ship, though, worked. And it worked again. And again. It made a dozen trips through darkspace at varying speeds, going anywhere from just past the speed of light to five hundred times. A trip that would take a foldwarp ship a month to cover, our new drive could do in a week with no problem. Some systems would now be days, instead of weeks or months, away. And unlike the transit drives, which required weeks of travel to reach them (since they had to be far enough away from the system), these drive systems could be engaged almost anywhere.

It was the thirteenth trip for Ship Two that was the problem. There was concern about drive lining degradation, but we weren’t sure it was all that much of a problem. Apparently it was. The ship entered darkspace, but didn’t appear where it was supposed to. It was several minutes after the expected arrival that something did appear: a cloud of debris. Some of the data collection pods had survived, and yup, it was the degradation we had feared. Now we knew, and now we could fix it.

Today is the day. All that work. All those blown up machines. Ship Three was ready for a trial run with a real crew. It was one thing to send small animals and single-celled lifeforms through darkspace. They all survived with no apparent issues. It was time for a person do it. The crew of four boarded an hour ago, maneuvered away from Dexi, and was arriving at the departure point. Everything was looking good. We were confident. This was going to be a historic moment.

The crew began to spin up the drive, increasing the energy levels to where a darkbubble could be created. Three. Two. One. And the ship disappeared, leaving conventional space-time. The plan was a short hop, at twice lightspeed, for one minute. One minute goes by. Nothing. Two minutes. The ship emerges, intact, further than planned. All seems good.

“This is Ship Two. We’ve had…” and the transmission is cut off as the ship turns into a cloud of energy and debris. Another accident. Four more deaths. What would that do to our program now?

The Final Test

It has been another trying three years. Another accident investigation. An admission that, no, corners were not cut, safety rules were not violated, and nothing obvious was overlooked. This was experimental work. These were experimental drive systems. There were losses and accidents when the original work on foldwarp was conducted. There were losses and accidents when the transit drive was developed.

Of course, they had fewer losses than us, but not all that many fewer. The team that invented foldwarp lost five people in total, two of them test pilots. The transit drive team lost six, although none due to the transit system itself. We’ve lost seven, eight if you include Jymu’s suicide after the lab explosion. If there were other self-inflicted deaths as a result of our program, we never heard about them.

Cirobi had acquired another ship. While out and about finding that ship, she had also met someone. That someone wasn’t me. But even though we still socialized, and obviously still worked together, she wasn’t forthcoming about this new person. I have no clue where that relationship is going. If it’s still there at all. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. She doesn’t talk much about it now.

Ship Four (we reeaallly needed to find someone with some creative skill) took a year to prep. We think we have a better handle on what happened with Ship Three. The team has made improvements, found some smaller issues we hadn’t really noticed before, and was able to test a lot of the new features on the drones we had remaining. We were confident that this test would work.

Our backers, and the System Government, made it clear that a successful test was necessary for continued funding and continued approval to work on the drive system. They understood more work would still be needed. A single successful test wasn’t a green light to roll this out across The Compact. But without one, and given the number of drones that have been lost, as well as the three ships plus one crew, our leash wasn’t infinite in length.

The crew had boarded, and preflight checks were underway when the pilot noticed a problem. A small one, but enough to scrub the mission for that day. It wasn’t related to the drive system (thankfully). It was an unresponsive maneuvering thruster. Sure, they could work around it. But it would better if they all functioned properly. It was an older ship, and while everything critical had been checked, this kind of problem wasn’t entirely a surprise.

That delayed us for a month. It was decided to replace all the thrusters, not just the problematic one. They were all older units anyways, of varying ages, some dating back to the original construction of the ship. We took advantage of that time to upgrade or refurbish a few other secondary ship systems. They weren’t critical for the mission, but would prove useful in the longer term. We also ran another few drive tests on the last pair of generation two drones remaining. And we still have them. No more exploding drones here. Our plan is to donate them to a museum  dedicated to spaceflight on Sister.

The day is here. The crew is aboard, preflight checks are underway. We’re all nervous. At least half are engaged in some kind of superstition-avoidance or superstition-confirmation activity. There are more than a few people who absolutely need to launder their socks. Or other clothing. Really? Cleaning your clothes will cause the mission to fail? I mention this quietly to Cirobi, who is standing next to me in the observation lounge as we watch the control room monitoring the flight. “Um, you haven’t shaved in well over a year, and you know how much I dislike beards” she whispered quietly to me. Yeah, okay, I get it. Guilty. It comes off after this test, successful or not.

The room is full. Me, Dowor, and Cirobi have pride of place at the front of the crowd. Those at the back have to watch on the overhead monitors placed around the room. I say out loud, to no one in particular “This is for Loqos and all the others we’ve lost. And it’s for all of us, too. Everyone. This will work, and will validate our effort and our sacrifices.” I really, really hope I’m right. If not, I’m going to look rather foolish. Not that it will matter. My looking like a buffoon will be the least of our problems if this doesn’t go as planned.

“Control, Ship Four. Preflight check complete. We are go for undocking.”

“Roger Four. We are green across the board. Go for undocking.”

The ship, sitting in its docking cradle on the surface of the asteroid, wobbles ever so slightly as the docking clamps are released. We never did get them to unlock in perfect unison. Oh well, a project for another day.

“Control, Four. We’re loose.”

“We see you free and clear to navigate Four. Go for departure.”

“Four, roger. Maneuvering thrusters. Pushing away.”

A few small jets fired briefly, and the ship pulled away from the cradle and the asteroid, slowly turning as it drifted free and away. After a few moments, the ship stopped turning, and continued to pull away and into open space.

“Engaging sublight. Point one.” The engine nozzles on the tail of the ship glowed for a few moments and the ship picked up speed. At the same time, it shimmered slightly as the Loqos Field was activated. No more ‘time travel’ for the crew because of time dilation.

“Four, control, we see you approaching point one.”

The ship continued to diminish into the distance. A small group of four sensor drones pulled away with the ship, some trailing, some alongside. New video feeds appeared on the overhead monitors, as well as the wall of screens inside the control room. Some showed the cockpit with the four crew members at their stations. Some showed various views of the outside of the ship as the stars shifted slowly in the background.

“Control, at point one. Holding course and speed.”

“Four, roger.”

Through the windows, the ship had shrunk to a small bright speck on a black backdrop, a star moving across the sky.

“Control, estimate five minutes to departure point. Beginning drive warmup sequence.”

“Four, we concur. Five minutes.”

Another glow appeared at the back of the ship, a ring of deep red, almost crimson, around the tail where the darkbubble would begin to be formed. It took about three minutes to get the drive to its operating state. There is no one talking. The crowd in the observation lounge is holding their collective breath, at least metaphorically. I have to remember to breath myself as I realize I am slightly dizzy. As I watch the images on the screens, part of my mind focuses on breathing. Just breath. Relax. This is going to work.

“Control, drive system shows green. Two minutes to departure.”

“Four, we see your drive as green. Two minutes.”

I keep glancing out the window in the direction I know the ship should be travelling. I also know there was little point in doing so. The small bright speck that was Ship Four can barely be seen. But I want to see it anyways. I shift my view from the screens to space and back.

“Control, one minute to departure. Increasing drive power.”

“Four, one minute. We see your drive power increase.”

“Control, thirty seconds, drive at eighty percent and rising.”

“Four, roger.”

The ring on the aft end of the ship glows brighter and brighter, turning from red to orange to yellow to blue to white.

“Control, ten seconds. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Full Power. Two. One.”

The ship disappears in a flash of light on the video coming from the accompanying drones. The dot that was the ship on the tracking plot also disappears. The video from the interior of the ship goes black.

Now we wait.

Sensor drones are pre-positioned at the point where the ship should emerge back into conventional space-time. The trip should take one minute. Thirty seconds pass. Forty. Fifty. This is taking forever. Something must be wrong! My mind just won’t settle down.

The videos showing empty space now show a ship. There was a brief flash, and the ship emerged from darkspace right where it was supposed to, and right on time.

“Control, Four. We are in conventional space again. That was quite the ride.”

The observation and control rooms explode into a cacophony of cheering, yelling, crying, singing, laughing. I can feel myself yelling, I’m jumping up and down. I grab the first person near me and hug them, hard. It’s Cirobi, tears streaming down her face.

Recent Writing Adventures

This is just a quick update, to let everyone know that I have a new short story coming in the next few days. I finally finished the first draft, and it now needs some review and polishing. It was quite the journey getting here, though.

A Start Without Structure

The story I just finished isn’t the one I started. My first was an attempt to write without pre-planning the major plot points. I usually like to create a simple outline of the key events in the story, even though they can change as I write. But I like to have a rough roadmap first, and if I’m deviating, I’m doing it because I’ve found a better story. That’s me. Not everyone likes to work that way, and I get that. This time around, I thought I’d try a different approach.

Needless to say, for me, it didn’t really work. The story was wandering off, and even though I’m the one at the keyboard, I couldn’t seem to get it to go anywhere in particular. The thing had a mind of its own. And it wasn’t a very interesting story, at least not to me. I’m going to revisit it in the future. I think there’s an interesting story to tell. I just wasn’t succeeding at telling it.

Round Two, This Time With Structure

So I decided to try a different story, one I had come up with while attempting to write the first one. This time, though, I planned out the basic plot points, and tried to get a sense of the story in advance. Then my job is to fill in those details, and tell the actual story. This time, I ran into two challenges. The first was that the story was much bigger than I thought. Far bigger than a “short story” should reasonably be in my opinion. This was really something big enough for a novella, perhaps an entire novel. Trying to stuff it into a short story wouldn’t do it justice.

The other problem was that I didn’t like how I was telling the story itself. It is a science fiction story, and I wanted to try to tell a story where the speed-of-light delay on high bandwidth communications is an element that impinges on the plot. It wasn’t just that I had a story to explore. I wanted to explore it in the context of some physics limitations, since they would impact how the story unfolded. And the way I started writing this story was going to make it really, really boring. So, a second story started and set aside while I figured out how to tell it properly.

Third Time’s The Charm?

I had a story idea that I have been noodling with for a couple of years now. And I came up with a way that, I think, tells the story, but in a nice, compact form. As written, it is most definitely a short story. Could it be bigger? Perhaps, but I think that it could easily get boring if told the wrong way.

No spoilers. I won’t give away the plot. All I’ll say is that it’s science fiction, and a bit of an experiment in writing at the same time. Stand by, it should be ready shortly.

The Rings of Power Could Use a Boost

(Spoilers ahead) Season one of the The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power from Amazon Prime has finished. Overall, I enjoyed it, but it could use some improvement. I’m looking forward to season two, and hope they are able to address some of the shortcomings I see in their storytelling.

Spoiler Alert: The following contains descriptions that are likely to spoil key plot points for people who have not yet watched the series. Read at your own risk.

The Challenge

There are complaints that the series isn’t hewing close enough to the original storylines, derived from a combination of The Silmarillion and various notes Tolkien made over the years. I get the complaints, but as the showrunners pointed out, the various stories in the original written work take place over thousands of years. While the elven characters would be continuous, the humans, dwarves, and other characters would be replaced virtually every episode. Either that, or the story would drag out so long that only die-hard Tolkien fans would likely pay attention. And unfortunately, we aren’t a big enough group to sustain a TV show whose estimated costs run close to $1 billion dollars.

As a result, the story has to be compressed. That means finding a balance between telling the stories that make up the foundation for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but keeping them in a timeframe that a large enough audience will want to pay attention. It’s a challenge to be sure.

Overall, Not Bad

Overall, I think the season was reasonably good. The sets, the visual effects, and the costumes are very impressive. They have captured the same sort of essence that we see in the Peter Jackson movies, which is a good thing. It is different enough so we know this isn’t the Third Age from the core books. But it is similar enough that we can trace the lineage and not wonder “well, where did that come from, and then where did it go?” (I’m looking at you Star Trek: Discovery).

The performers are quite good in their roles, and that we (again) get a host of largely unknown actors means we see the characters, not the actors. The only suggestion I would have is for Morfydd Clark is if she could please unclench her teeth when she speaks. Enunciation is very much appreciated by the audience.

Lameness Isn’t Pleasant

The first glaring bit of lameness is the opening credits. Frankly, the dancing sand is horribly lame. After a couple of episodes, I now skip that part entirely. Yes, we get the right music with the right tone to impart the sense of gravity and importance of the events we will see. But the dancing sand takes away from all of that, ruining the mood. It’s as if that sand is trying terribly, terribly hard to look serious and important, and falls short in that regard.

Okay, so we can skip that part each episode. But then the season finale ends with an even more lame, verging on horrible, “song” where they attempt to set the explanatory poem about the rings (“three rings for the elven kings under the sky…”) to music. It doesn’t work. It’s bad. What makes it worse is it sounds like a feeble attempt to mimic a Shirley Bassey version of a James Bond theme. And it fails on every front. The bit of verse Tolkien wrote is structured in an odd way. It works when just read or is spoken aloud. It does not lend itself to be lyrics for a song. Fortunately, in the future I can stop the last episode before that travesty of a tune assaults my ears.

Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

The episodes themselves are very unevenly paced. There are many sections where the dialog just isn’t that interesting, isn’t telling us anything new, at times is beating us about the head on something we’ve already figured out, and seems to be long for the sake of being long. I’ve found myself a few times asking “could we just please get on with it”. Yeah, I get that Nori is taking a big step in going with the Istari that will be known as Gandalf (the “follow your nose” line was an amusing way to make that clear). It’s a parallel to both Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit, and the one the four hobbits take in The Lord of the Rings. But Nori doesn’t need to spend what seems like an eternity explaining how hard it is for her emotionally to go.

The fact that the penultimate episode felt like the season finale, but nope, there’s one more to go, says something. Here we have things wrapped up in a bit of a bow, with a bunch of open story lines to be continued next season. The Southlands become Mordor, the Numenorians return home to regroup, and Galadriel is going to take Halbrand to get some healing. A potential new hero, in the young man Tyroe Muhafidin, is ready for his own story arc. We know that the mystery man from the sky has more to unveil, and the Harfoots (Harfeet?) are settled for a bit.

Apparently they felt the need for a “just one more thing” moment, as if they didn’t trust that we would be back for another season. The first three rings, for the elves, are made. Halbrand is revealed to be Sauron. The stranger from the sky is revealed to be Gandalf (after briefly and poorly flirting with him actually being Sauron). And a hobbit predecessor is “going on an adventure”. Really? This could have waited until season two? It’s not like there isn’t a lot more to come, because we know there is. There are still 17 more rings to be made and handed out. Gandalf needs to develop his powers, and there are four more wizards (Saruman, Radagast, the two unnamed blue wizards) still to arrive (or be found). The Greenwood needs to transform to Mirkwood. The harfoot need to evolve to become hobbits. That’s a lot to cover.

The last episode felt more like a filler, a need to make sure they had an even eight episodes. It contains nothing that couldn’t have waited to season two. But since they had a requirement to make eight episodes (and filling them was apparently already a challenge, given the pacing), we get eight. Plus so much is wrapped up in a bow in the episode that if they cancelled the series, we wouldn’t be left hanging all that much. It was almost as if they were afraid to leave things too open-ended.

Definitely More To Come

There is a lot more to come in the story. The question will be how many seasons have they planned, and how far do they take the story. Will it go as far as the war where Sauron is defeated (leading into Third Age)? Will it only go as far as the forging and distribution of the remaining rings? There is so much that can be covered. What happens to the dwarves after they get their rings, and how are they lost? What about the nine rings given to the nine human kings? We’ve seen nothing of those kingdoms at all at this point. The founding of Osgiliath, Minas Anor (which will become Minas Tirith). and Minas Ithil (which became Minas Morgul). The appearance of the Rohirrim. The construction of Orthanc and the Ring of Isengard. There is so much yet to be covered.

Part of the question is how much will be included in the next seasons of The Rings of Power. There is a lot, and even leaving out big chunks will make for a substantial story. Hopefully they can improve on some of the issues the first season has, and continue to tell a compelling story.